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I’ve just posted another, relatively new short story, Oranges and Lemons. (Epub to follow.) Oddly enough, in some ways it’s also the oldest of them all, and it comes at things from a very different tack to most of what I write. This isn’t a story I’ve worked out on my own. This is a story I heard. And when, a few years ago, I finally found out that no-one else had ever heard it despite the fact that plenty of us knew the source, I decided to eventually write it up and share.

Oranges and Lemons the story is both condensed and expanded. The text is expanded — greatly expanded — from the concepts in my mind, but the sequence of events is heavily compressed. The concepts can cover years in a single emotion, but I can’t do that easily in writing. So I cut the rambling it would take and tried to compress all the weight of the conceptual background into a series of events spanning a single day.

But, you might ask, and the real purpose of this post is to tell, how did it all come about in the first place? It’s like this. When I was young, I heard — repeatedly — the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” (the version I know is below the cut, for anyone who’s interested). It’s a song that as far as I can make out (correct me if I’m wrong) is basically designed to memorise the bells of London, with a playground game tacked on to the end. Given the constant bell repetitions, you’d think that was pretty clear… but my younger self (like my older self, really) was both very literal-minded and logical, thought in concepts more than anything else, and always looked for a story in everything. I can’t go through my childhood thought processes — I barely have any datable memories from before I was seven or so, let alone memorable thoughts — but I can guess at the reasoning behind my interpretation. It probably, subconsciously, went something like this:

  1. It would be silly for there to be a song about bells.
  2. The word “said” is used. Bells can’t talk.
  3. The bells must be a metaphor!

Each bell and its phrase becomes a concept, painting an overall picture. Even at a fairly young age, I was familiar with the concept of the Old Bailey as a part of the system of law (specifically, it’s a court), and while I apparently wasn’t familiar with the similar association with Bow (Bow Street Runners, etc.), it being a Great Bell was enough to give its concept a position of power.

So we have a marketplace, where the traders are calling out their wares, the greengrocer advertising to his customers. We have a pile of debts, each one small, but nonetheless providing grounds for the forces of the law to harass. You’ll pay, you’ll pay when only you can, if you only get out if this everlasting downward spiral, but nobody believes it, not any more. Finally a voice in power casts you off as a lost cause, and whether it’s the debtors gaol and a dry place to sleep before death or whether it’s the criminal underworld like a thief in the night (because I was always uncomfortable with the idea that the real law would be so cruel), any last spark of hope is snuffed out along with your life. All for the sake of the trap, no money and no work and a vicious cycle of mounting debt that you can never escape.

I was probably a bit of an odd child, I suppose — but odd in the very best of ways. And apparently one who could see outside of my own little box: I’ve never even been short of money temporarily, much less outright poor. Thinking about it, I was probably a lot more aware of the outside world as a little kid than I was as a teenager! (I felt like I had enough to do sorting myself out without taking on the world as well, I guess. When I was little, though, I used to write Amnesty International letters and all sorts.)

The version I knew, part of a VHS collection of nursery rhymes my siblings and I would watch over and over as children:

Oranges and lemons
Say the bells of St. Clements

You owe me five farthings
Say the bells of St. Martins

When will you pay me
Say the bells of Old Bailey

When I grow rich
Say the bells of Shoreditch

When will that be
Say the bells of Stepney

That I don’t know
Says the great bell of Bow

(Here comes a candle to light you to bed
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head
Chop! Chop! Chop!)